David Henry Hwang Biography

David Henry Hwang Biography

In David Henry Hwang's plays, East and West often meet—and the results are usually not pretty. No other playwright has had as much critical and commercial success in confronting issues of Asian and Asian-American identity. His most heralded work, M. Butterfly, took a real-life political scandal and filtered it through the lens of Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly. The result is a play that questions traditional notions of race, gender, and identity. In Hwang’s other works, F.O.B. (an acronym for the derogatory phrase “fresh off the boat”) and Yellow Face, the playwright continues to confront the question of how Americans identify (and mis-identify) Asians. In addition, he examines and deconstructs how Asians identify themselves. His plays are at once confrontational and sharply humorous, and have helped carve a place for Asian-American theater in the United States.

Facts and Trivia

  • Hwang rewrote the book for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, which centers on Asian-American immigrants. Ironically, Hwang’s more multicultural and politically correct version was less commercially successful than the original.
  • Hwang serves on the Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, appointed by President Clinton.
  • Hwang has worked closely with prolific composer Philip Glass. The two have collaborated on numerous music- and dance-based pieces.
  • Hwang is the first Asian American to win a Tony Award for Best Play. He received it for his 1988 work M. Butterfly.
  • Hwang wrote the books for the Disney musicals Tarzan (based upon the animated film of the same name) and Aida (which featured music by Elton John).


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

David Henry Hwang was born on August 11, 1957, in San Gabriel, a suburb of Los Angeles. His father, Henry Y. Hwang, grew up in Shanghai, China, and in the 1970’s founded the Far East National Bank, the first Asian American-owned national bank in the United States. David’s mother, Dorothy Hwang, born in southeast China and raised in the Philippines, was a talented pianist who encouraged her son to play the violin. Although David’s mother and sister became classical musicians, he opted for jazz and played in an all-Asian rock band during college. He even composed an “Oriental riff” for his play Face Value (1993).

Educated in an elite preparatory school, Hwang was always interested in words. He was on the school’s debate team and was encouraged by his parents to become a lawyer. Hwang’s family was actively involved in the “born again” Evangelical Christian Church, a fact bitterly satirized in his play Family Devotions (1981). He grew up feeling that he should date only Chinese girls and for a few years was married to Ophelia Chong, a Chinese Canadian artist. His later plays, such as M. Butterfly (1988), Bondage (1992), and Face Value, use themes of interracial love and rebellion against traditional images and expectations. He has said that there was always a part of him that did things that were not expected of him. In the early 1990’s, he began living with Caucasian actress Kathryn Layng in Los Angeles, whom he married in 1993. The couple resides with their children in New York City. Hwang promotes in his work the idea of cultures existing harmoniously side by side, and he believes that children of mixed heritage represent the world’s future.

At Stanford University, John L’Heurex, a novelist and creative-writing instructor, encouraged Hwang to pursue playwriting. Another of Hwang’s early formative influences was the 1978 Padua Hills Playwrights Festival workshop, where he studied under Sam Shepard, an explosive playwright whose work combines human interaction with mythmaking and to whom Hwang dedicated Family Devotions. His play F.O.B. (1978) was staged Off-Broadway and was developed for the Playwrights’ Conference of the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, and the New York Shakespeare Festival. As critic Douglas Street pointed out, F.O.B. is American in style and Asian in its concerns. It explores issues to which Hwang has returned frequently in his writing: the interplay between the insider and the outsider and the exploration of loneliness. The play received rave reviews and garnered many awards, including a 1981 Obie Award as best Off-Broadway production.

The Dance and the Railroad (1981), which Hwang wrote while studying at the Yale School of Drama, focuses exclusively and evocatively on Chinese history. Family Devotions is a bizarre Southern California domestic farce about confrontation, alienation, and the loss of ethnic awareness. Feeling that he had exhausted his Chinese...

(The entire section is 1246 words.)

David Henry Hwang Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In the introduction to F.O.B., and Other Plays, Maxine Hong Kingston comments on the authenticity of the idioms that David Henry Hwang uses in his plays. She praises him for depicting so well the sounds of “Chinatown English, the language of childhood and the subconscious, the language of emotion, the language of home.” Hwang’s artistic palette, however, is broader than realism. He uses surrealism, ritual and evocation, and gender manipulation to shock and entertain his audiences as he tears down the walls of racism and creates a new vision of humanity.

David Henry Hwang Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

David Henry Hwang is a second-generation Chinese American. From his earliest plays, Hwang has been concerned with the Chinese American experience. Hwang has identified three developmental phases in his early work. His “assimilationist” phase was motivated by the overwhelming desire to be accepted by white American culture. Hwang’s first play, F. O. B., exemplifies this first period. Dave, a Chinese American, reacts negatively to a “fresh-off-the-boat” Chinese, Steve, because Steve exhibits all the stereotypic mannerisms that Dave has tried to suppress his entire life.

In college, Hwang lived in an all-Asian dormitory and was caught up in an “isolationist-nationalist” phase. During this phase, Hwang was primarily concerned with writing for a Chinese American audience. This resulted in The Dance and the Railroad, which recaptures the history of the Chinese American railroad strike of 1867, and Family Devotions, which encourages Chinese Americans to reject negative Western perceptions and remember their Chinese heritage.

After the isolationist phase, Hwang next became interested in the love story. He adapted two classic Japanese love stories and wrote a play without identified Asian characters. Although not successful, this last experiment led directly to Hwang’s masterpiece, M. Butterfly, in which a French diplomat carries on an affair with a Chinese actress for years, only to discover that “she” is really a man. Identity is explored as Hwang shows how the Frenchman Gallimard falls in love with an Asian stereotype. Gallimard commits suicide at the loss of his lover, a role-reversal of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904). Wanting to advocate a broader forum against sexism and racism in literature, Hwang created Bondage, an allegory of love that challenges a variety of prejudices. Bondage takes place in a fantasy bondage parlor where domination is subverted when stereotypes are rejected by masked participants.

The historical and cultural identity of Chinese Americans is at the heart of Hwang’s plays, which present a significant exploration of the evolving identity of Asians in a pluralistic society.

David Henry Hwang Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

David Henry Hwang was born in Los Angeles on August 11, 1957, the son of Henry Yuan Hwang, a banker, and Dorothy Huang Hwang, a professor of piano. His father grew up in Shanghai, China, and emigrated in the late 1940’s to California, where he enrolled in the business program at the University of Southern California. His mother, born in southeastern China, had grown up in the Philippines.

Hwang received his A.B. degree in English from Stanford University in 1979, then briefly taught writing in a high school in Menlo Park, California, before attending the Yale School of Drama in 1980 and 1981. His first play, F.O.B., was performed at Stanford University before being accepted for production at the National Playwrights Conference at Connecticut’s O’Neill Theater Center in 1979, when he was twenty-one years old. The following year, Joseph Papp brought it to the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theatre, Off-Broadway. It won an Obie Award for the best new play of the season.

Like F.O.B., Hwang’s next two plays focused on the Chinese American experience. The Dance and the Railroad depicts two nineteenth century immigrants working on the transcontinental railroad, while Family Devotions is a bizarre farce set in contemporary California.

His next two plays, jointly titled Sound and Beauty, are stylized one-act plays set in contemporary Japan; they were produced Off-Broadway in 1983. The first, The House of Sleeping Beauties, reinvents a novella by Yasunari Kawabata, making the author a character in a version of his own work. The second, The Sound of a Voice, involves a conflict between a samurai warrior and a bewitching female hermit whom he intends to kill.

In 1983, Hwang received a Rockefeller playwright-in-residence award and a National Endowment for the Arts artistic associate fellowship. A Guggenheim Fellowship followed in 1984, as did fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts in 1985. On September 25, 1985, he married Ophelia Y. M. Chong, an artist, from whom he was later divorced.

Rich Relations, produced Off-Broadway in 1986, was his first work not about the Asian experience and his first critical failure, though it recapitulated various themes from his earlier plays. Nevertheless, Hwang has termed this failure exhilarating, freeing him...

(The entire section is 996 words.)

David Henry Hwang Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

David Henry Hwang (wong) has been a prominent playwright for the American stage since the early 1980’s. Best known for M. Butterfly, Hwang typically questions traditional racial and gender stereotypes, complicates notions of cultural identity, and chronicles the Asian American experience in the United States.

The son of banker Henry Yuan Hwang and piano professor Dorothy Yu (Huang) Hwang, Hwang grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His parents were both immigrant Chinese Americans. As a child, Hwang studied classical violin for ten years and later played jazz beginning in his college years, a musical upbringing and calling that influenced many of his dramatic works, most notably M....

(The entire section is 1322 words.)

David Henry Hwang Biography

(Drama for Students)

David Henry Hwang was born on August 11, 1957 in Los Angeles, California. His father, Henry Hwang, was a banker who had immigrated to the...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

David Henry Hwang Biography

(Drama for Students)

David Henry Hwang was born on August 11, 1957, in Los Angeles, California, to his immigrant parents, Henry Yuan, a native of Shanghai, China,...

(The entire section is 547 words.)